In my research on 1 Corinthians 2, I have noticed an interesting tendency among various scholars commenting on the text. Commentators are inclined to place a lot of emphasis on the places where Paul mentions Jesus in vs. 2, 8, and 16. If you note, very little is actually said about Jesus in those places. Only two pieces of information about Jesus are explicitly mentioned: he was crucified by the political powers and that he is someone who has a particular mental understanding. All of this is something that the Corinthians could have very well already understood about Jesus.
And yet, you will see commentators trying to draw a lot of implications about Paul’s mentioning of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2. Duane Litfin in St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation considers v.2 to establish the parameters of Paul’s preaching by relying exclusively upon the cross; he similarly considers v. 6-16 to be an understanding of the cross from God’s perspective, rather than a human perspective. Or consider Mary Healy’s analysis of 2.6-16 in “Knowledge of a Mystery” in The Bible and Epistemology where she understands the revelation mentioned 10 as defined by the historical event of Jesus incarnation and death. While by no means universal in the scholarship, there is a noted predilection to give much greater theological weight to the mentions of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2, as if Paul’s purpose in chapter 2 is to teach how Jesus and the cross saves, reveals, and defines preaching, even though all the information Jesus references is something we can imagine that the Corinthians already had.
But as I have paid close attention to the structure of 1 Corinthians 2, this is the wrong way to read the passage. While I won’t give it all away as it is part of my research project and I would like to keep that for my final work, chapter 2 is heavily weighted towards the Spirit, not Jesus. Most obvious is the fact that there are seven references to the Spirit, along with two other references to people who are defined by the Spirit.
Why then do commentators focus so much theological weight on the reference to Jesus in that chapter? Part of the reason is a natural problem of ignorance as we are not always clear how ancient texts conveyed meaning. Thus, we fill in the gaps of ambiguity with knowledge that we do have, which Christians who have studied theology have a lot of knowledge about Jesus. This is a natural and unavoidable part of reading and interpreting.
However, the corollary to this is that many commentators don’t understand 1 Corinthians 2 as giving the greatest weight to the Spirit, even though the Spirit is given much greater weight than Jesus. Certainly, the exegetical overemphasis on Jesus in 1 Corinthians 2 is not universally true. For instance, the Pentecostal Gordon Fee has observed that vs. 6-16 is about how the Spirit brings about wisdom. But it is common to place the emphasis upon Christ, especially when the theology that has influence is a starkly Christ-o-centric theology. For instance, Mary Healy’s analysis of 2.6-16 shares many resemblances to Barthian theology in language and themes.
This leads me to a general tendency that I am making towards Protestant theology prior to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition: there is a sharp emphasis for placing the locus of salvation on the cross of Jesus, or even the resurrection of Jesus, that leads to the diminishing theological necessity for the Spirit. Our theological questions and explorations have been distinctly focused on how Jesus saves, or how our faith in Jesus saves, that has lead to the construction of metaphysical and ontological schemes that can deliver salvation by death on a cross and through faith. If you construct an ontological scheme that makes the connection between Christ’s death and human salvation, then you have a diminished role for the Holy Spirit.
Allow me to reference the doctrine of the atonement as prototype of this intellectual tendency. How does Christ’s death atone for sins? Clearly, the Scriptures speak of Christ dying on behalf of how our sins, but how exactly does the death of Christ accomplish this? The predilection is to come up with a metaphysical explanation to explain this. Most prominently, penal substitution raises guilt and punishment to the level of an ontological necessity to address in order for people to be saved. But what is the role of the Spirit in this? Perhaps to “apply” the atonement in some fashion. However, if I may be bit suspicious at the risk of saying something false, these ways of including the Spirit in atonement smack of trying to be “orthodox” in including the Spirit, but that the role of the Holy Spirit is not really important to the understanding the doctrine of the atonement except as a theological assumption.
However, without trying to prove my argument here, I will counter that Jesus’ death and resurrection ‘atone’ because the work of the Spirit forms human life into the pattern of the incarnate Christ. The Holy Spirit is not some secondary figure in the atonement, but is God realizing the life of Christ in us as human people. Atonement happens because God acts in Christ and the Spirit to change people and creation, rather than any attempt to address some other ontological necessity or reality independent of the God-human relation.
This leads me to a point I would make about Paul: soteriology is Pneumatology, not Christology. To be sure, Jesus is the disclosure of God’s righteousness to the world, both in how God saves and what type of people God saves us to be, but the event of salvation in a specific person is not attributed to the event of the cross, but to the Spirit who brings us into body of Christ.
But this is not some mere ideological and doctrinal talking point for Paul to create a consistent metaphysical system that seems consistent and coherent. Paul is not concerned with a logical, systematic account of Christian theology that ties together all to the loose ends and answers all intellectual questions. Rather, the charismatic empowerment and ethical direction of the Spirit in evangelism, in people’s lives, and in worship are a recurring them in the Pauline correspondence. This is precisely part of Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 2: the wisdom that the Corinthians are seeking can only be realized by the work of the Spirit and their cooperation with this work as spiritual persons rather than acting like people of the flesh who engage in conflicts based upon favor teachers as he mentioned in 3.3-4. Chapters 12-14 can be understood as putting 2.6-3.4 into instructions about their worship practices; Paul explicates this Pneumatological reality in worship and how it needs to be ordered by love for the building up of each other through the charismatic empowerment. I would say, in the end, it is only by the Holy Spirit that Christians can have a Scripturally warranted grounds for treating theology as referring to lived life rather than simply understood.
When our theology treats soteriology as Christology, we try to fill in the gaps between the historical event of the cross and our own lives by various psychological practices on our own that we think make us “spiritual” For instance, we are repeatedly told to bring something to the cross of Jesus, whether it be our sins, our struggles, our anxieties, etc. etc. But what does this amount to but a psychological practice and act of devotion? I am not begrudging these ideas if they are treated as a spiritual discipline. However, unfortunately, they can be treated as necessary and sufficient actions that form us as Christians that can readily be universalized.
For instance, the idea of surrendering to God is a very helpful practice for people that have struggle with addictions that manfiests very real spiritual transformation to people. But is it that surrender somehow provides a spiritual benefit to all people, or is it that the Spirit works through those people as they surrender? Now Scripture provides the language of faith, humility, submission, and following as paradigms for understanding the Christian life, and “surrendering to God” can lead one to trust God, humble oneself to God, submit to God, and follow God, but is it that we surrender to God or is it that we allow the Spirit to lead us as we faith, humble ourselves, submit ourselves, and follow Christ?
Consider the counter-example of a person who has come into a state of learned helplessness, where what they do is never provides what they are looking for, and feels like they have no sense of control as it doesn’t matter what they do and feels like giving up? Is trying to get them to “surrender” the best option? Or, do they need to learn how the Spirit provides them power and strength to act according to God’s purposes? The necessary action in faith looks different from those whose keep trying to control and the despondent who feels nothing will ever change.
If the “distance” between the event of Jesus’ cross and ourselves is not bridged by the Holy Spirit but by something else, we will be inclined to frame spirituality by our own experience as a monolithic paradigm of redemption rather than the diversity of the work of God through the Spirit. If we treat soteriology as Christology and are synergists in our theology, like me and my fellow Wesleyans, we might be tempted to think the “distance” between the cross and us is through some specific behavior, attitude, etc. that makes the cross efficacious. At this point we would be in the risk of works righteousness, becoming semi-Pelagian, and allowing the triumph of the therapeutic.
For us as Wesleyans, the only warranted theological basis upon which we can situate our salvation as occurring by God’s action while simultaneously maintaining a very real place to our own human action is through how we understand our lives in relation to the empowerment and leading of the Spirit. It is Pneumatology that bridges the tensions that we have faced between giving prominence to the work of God and recognizing the place of human action. Without a robust Pneumatology, we Wesleyans will think and act as if we are Reformed in its authoritarian emphasis or as a liberal-progressive in its human-centeredness. But a Pneumatologically-inclined Wesleyan theology will allow us to relate to God, not like a distant King who commands and takes nor as our best friend who tells us what we want to hear, but like a Rabbi who teaches, instructs, and guides as we trust, humble ourselves, submit ourselves, and follow.